The Key to Saving Teenagers
Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence related to adolescents keeping the faith into their 20s, according to new findings from a landmark study of youth and religion.
Just 1% of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid- to late 20s.
In contrast, 82% of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults, according to data from the latest wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion.
The connection is “nearly deterministic,” said University of Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith, lead researcher for the study.
Other factors such as youth ministry or clergy or service projects or religious schools pale in comparison.
“No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth,” Smith said in a recent talk sharing the findings at Yale Divinity School. “Parents just dominate.”
One of the strongest factors associated with older teens keeping their faith as young adults was having parents who talked about religion and spirituality at home, Smith said.
Other key factors included having parents for whom personal faith is important and who demonstrate that faith through attending services. Teens whose parents attended worship with them were especially likely to be religiously active as young adults ...
Yet, he said, there are some powerful “cultural scripts” that discourage parents from taking an active role in the spiritual lives of their teens.
Among those scripts:
• After age 12, the role of parents recedes, and the influence of peers, the media, music and social media take over.
• Cultural messages that encourage parents to turn their children over to “experts.” In the case of faith formation, many parents consider that to be the responsibility of clergy, Sunday schools and youth groups, Smith said.
For their part, parents need to realize a hands-off approach to religion has consequences.
“Parents, for better or worse, are actually the most influential pastors … of their children,” Smith said. “Parents set a kind of glass ceiling of religious commitment, above which their children rarely rise.”